What the Alasania Scandal Means for Russo-Georgian Relations

Irakli Garibashvili (Press office photo)

Irakli Garibashvili (Press office photo)

Georgia’s recent scandal involving former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania is now winding down.

The government managed to avert a crisis. Not only did they succeed in retaining their majority in parliament but also expanded it. The addition of independent MPs and defectors from Alasania’s camp have increased the Georgian Dream’s share of seats to 87, even higher than the original 83 prior to the Alasania scandal. This not only averted a potential new parliamentary election, but also now gives the Georgian Dream a comfortable and secure majority.

In addition, the vacant ministerial posts have been filled. Prime Minister Garibashvili has also selected Tamar Beruchashvili as the new Foreign Minister. He also appointed Georgia’s former ambassador to Greece, Davit Bakradze (not to be confused with the Saakashvili political ally and former presidential candidate) as the country’s new Euro Integration Minister.

Yet, a significant question continues to linger: does the scandal indicate a Georgian U-turn toward Moscow? The simple answer is “not anytime soon.”

A potential Georgian U-turn seemed more likely in late 2013 and early 2014, as Saakashvili left office. At that time, Georgia had not yet signed the EU Association Agreement and was scheduled to do so in far-off August. There were also emerging signs of a growing thaw between Moscow and Tbilisi, culminating in Vladimir Putin’s invitation to President Giorgi Margvelashvili during the Sochi Winter Olympics for a one-on-one meeting.

However, the rapprochement was disrupted by the Ukraine crisis. The West redoubled its efforts to bring Georgia into its fold, by moving up the signing of the Association Agreement in June, by granting Tbilisi more EU aid money, and by persuading the formerly pro-Putin Georgian Orthodox Patriarch to become pro-EU.  The fear of a possible Georgian Maidan and the tragic legacy of the 1990s civil war in Georgia also loom large in the thoughts of Georgia’s pragmatists.

Therefore, a potential Georgian U-turn toward Moscow appears unlikely, at least for the time being. Also, much is contingent on how developments progress in Ukraine and if the cash-strapped, pro-Western government in Kiev can last.

Still, the departure of Alasania’s Free Democrats and the government’s comfortable majority in parliament certainly does grant more maneuvering room for dealing with Moscow. Specifically, this gives the government a mandate for expanding relations with Russia beyond trade and economic spheres.

Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba (PIA)

Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba (PIA)

For now, this will not mean that Georgia will abandon its pursuit of the EU and NATO, though without Alasania, such efforts will become less strident and aggressive. Likewise, it will not signal an immediate mutually acceptable solution to the longstanding Abkhaz and Ossetian conflicts.

However, the new situation does create the conditions for the dormant high-level meeting proposed by Putin in Sochi to be realized, and for diplomatic ties to be restored between both countries. It will also allow for a greater dialogue between Tbilisi and its breakaways and for the realization of important confidence-building measures vital to future peace. For South Ossetia, this includes a possible reopening of the Ergneti market and, for Abkhazia, a possible reopening of the Abkhaz railway. The Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba has already offered his support for the latter.

Some may contest the idea that Tbilisi would ever consider a serious rapprochement with Moscow. The Georgians, they argue, are simply too proud and nationalistic to let this happen. The Russians too, they would contend, would be unwilling to accept anything less than the total capitulation of Tbilisi, including its full recognition of Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence.

However, such arguments are purely impressionistic, based on long-standing ethnic stereotypes played up by the media. In reality, there is nothing in the “Georgian national character” that makes all Georgians, by fate of their ethnic origins, inherently “nationalistic,” “Russophobic,” or “reckless.” Likewise the Russians are not “uncompromising, stubborn imperialists.” In fact, Russia has a history of flexibility, compromise, and openness – provided that its interests and international law and procedure are respected.

Zurab Abashidze (PIA)

Zurab Abashidze (PIA)

In fact, the facts reveal a different story from the mainstream narrative. The vast majority of Georgians want to restore relations with Russia. According to a poll by Georgia’s Kviris Palitra newspaper, 59.4% of Georgians favor continuing the Abashidze-Karasin format. Only 19.7% opposed it, while 20.9% were unsure. The poll was conducted very recently, in October 2014 during the controversy over Russia’s proposed treaty of “Alliance and Integration” with Abkhazia. At that time, Georgia’s more hawkish politicians wanted to scrap the Abashidze-Karasin format entirely.

In addition, a good portion of Georgians also favor membership in the Eurasian Union. In 2013, the pro-Western Caucasus Research Resource Center (CRRC) asked Georgians whether or not they supported membership of their country in the Eurasian Union. The results showed that 32% said “yes,” 24% said “no,” 27% said that they “don’t know” while a further 17% support some aspects of it but not others. If one adds the latter figure with the 32% in support, the total actually emerges as 49%.

Another poll from the Kazakh-based Eurasian Development Bank from this year (2014) found support for the Eurasian Union among 53% of Georgia’s population. For comparison, support for the Eurasian Union in Armenia was 64%, while in Azerbaijan, it was 22%. A much earlier poll by Gallup conducted in 2008 found strong support in Georgia for deeper cooperation among the CIS countries. Overall, 11% favored a “single state,” while another 11% favored a “federal state,” and 32% favored an “economic union” for a total of 54% of the population. Meanwhile, 30% favored cooperation as independent states and 16% were “unsure.” In percentages comparable to the 2014 Kazakhstan poll, the total percentages of those who supported integration either as a single state, a federation, or an economic union, was 63% in Armenia and 28% in Azerbaijan.

Taking into account these significant findings, if one were to attach the incentive of a potential Russian-backed peace deal for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it would be difficult to imagine support for Moscow’s Eurasian Union not growing. In fact, it would likely increase substantially.

Giorgi Margvelashvili is congratulated by a supporter after his election as Georgia's president. (AP)

Giorgi Margvelashvili is congratulated by one of his supporters after his election as Georgia’s president. (AP)

In the case of the first two polls from Kviris Palitra and the CRRC, a consistent trend can be discerned. The majority of Georgians favor restored ties with Moscow, a significant number are still “unsure,” while a minority favors a total rejection of all things Russian. If one observes Georgia’s latest election (i.e., the presidential election of 2013), one finds a similar breakdown. Margvelashvili, the pro-Georgian Dream candidate, acquired 62.12% of the votes while the overtly pro-Moscow Nino Burjanadze received 10.19% of the votes. Together, this makes approximately 72.31% of the vote. Davit Bakradze, the UNM candidate, only acquired 21.72% of the vote. Therefore, one can conclude from the election results, combined with the polling data from Kviris Palitra and the CRRC, that the section of the Georgian electorate that is Russophobic, nationalistic, and overtly pro-Western, represents only 20-25% of the total Georgian electorate.

However, within Georgia’s political and intellectual elite, the influence of this group grows significantly. This is enhanced by the fact that, in the 2012 parliamentary election, which was conducted while Saakashvili was still in office, the UNM still gained 40% of the vote, allowing them to maintain significant influence in the Georgian parliament. In addition, the two major pro-Western opposition blocs, the UNM and the Free Democrats, both have backers and supporters in the West, especially among the American political establishment, both Republicans and Democrats. Further, they are also supported by American-backed NGOs working in Georgia.

There have also been earlier polls, conducted by Gallup, that showed tendencies in the general Georgian society indicating continued admiration, respect, and positive attitudes toward Russia. On the eve of the 2008 war in Georgia, Gallup found that 41% of Georgians agreed with the statement that “it is more important for Georgia to have close relations with Russia even if this can harm relations with the USA.” Another 41% volunteered the response that “it is equally important for Georgia to have close relations with both Russia and USA.” Only 11% agreed with the statement that “it is more important for Georgia to have close relations with the USA even if this can harm relations with Russia.”

To the question “which country in the former Soviet space do you admire and look up to most of all?,” 40% responded “Russia,” 29% “Ukraine,” and the remainder other countries. In addition, 64% of Georgians agreed with the statement that “Georgia has to have good relations with Russia by all means.”

Mikheil Saakashvili at the UN (Reuters)

Mikheil Saakashvili at the UN (Reuters)

These very friendly attitudes soured after the 2008 war. In the subsequent poll conducted in 2009 by Gallup, only 47% agreed with the statement that “Georgia has to have good relations with Russia by all means.” 37% agreed that “Georgia has to have a principal position regarding Russia.” Significantly, only 5% agreed with “terminating all relations with Russia,” which is effectively the policy that Mikheil Saakashvili pursued after the war and which the UNM continues to support today.

The number of those who agreed with the statement that “it is more important for Georgia to have close relations with Russia even if this can harm relations with the USA” dropped to 28%. Meanwhile those who agreed that “it is more important for Georgia to have close relations with the USA even if this can harm relations with Russia” increased to 24%.

Inquiring about the EU, Gallup determined that in 2008, only 14% agreed with the statement that “it is more important for Georgia to have close relations with the EU even if this can harm relations with Russia.” This increased in 2009 to 27%. Meanwhile, 33% said “it is more important for Georgia to have close relations with Russia even if this can harm relations with the EU.” This decreased to 22% in 2009. Finally, 44% of Georgians volunteered “it is equally important for Georgia to have close relations with both Russia and EU.” This decreased to 34% in 2009.

Bidzina Ivanishvili (AFP / Vano Shlamov)

Bidzina Ivanishvili (AFP / Vano Shlamov)

It is indisputable that the development of these new attitudes was affected by the war and by Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. At the same time, it is also worth noting that people in Georgia became increasingly more afraid to express their opinions openly as Saakashvili’s regime became increasingly more authoritarian. According to Gallup, in 2012, only 17% of the population agreed with the statement that “no one is afraid to express their opinion.” This shot up to 40% in 2013, after the election of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party.

For his part, Saakashvili’s approval rating in Georgia stood at a mere 22% in 2012 according to Gallup. The approval rating was exactly the same in August 2014, according to a later poll conducted by the CRRC for the National Democratic Institute (NDI). The figure again corresponds to the fact that about 20-25% of the Georgian electorate supports a tougher line toward Russia. Significantly, the latter poll also found that 73% of Georgians are presently dissatisfied with the current state of relations with Russia and that 65% supported the reopening of the Abkhaz railway. In another more recent CRRC poll, 91% of the Georgian population indicated that they still speak Russian as a second language, despite Saakashvili’s efforts to supplement this with English. For comparison in Armenia, 97% speak Russian as a second language while in Azerbaijan, 73% speak Russian.

Still, as of August 2014, support for the EU and NATO remains high in Georgia at 78% and 72% respectively according to the CRRC’s NDI poll. This is despite the fact that, in a typical post-Soviet manner, many Georgians also support membership in the Eurasian Union. Indeed, many would claim to support “both,” especially in the regions. In the case of the EU, the majority (58%) believe that eventual membership will improve the Georgian economy. However, it must be emphasized again that the “vision” of Europe and the reality of Europe are very much different. Brussels is still recovering from the Eurozone crisis and it is unlikely that, if Georgia were to eventually join the EU, it would see any immediate economic benefit, as was the case with the bloc’s newest Eastern European members – Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia.

Kakheti, Georgia: A People and Their Wine

Kakheti, Georgia: A People and Their Wine (Eurasia Travel)

Yet, as far as the EU and NATO are concerned, membership in these organizations is not a priority for most Georgians. In fact, in their view, Georgia’s main priorities are unemployment, poverty, pensions, and healthcare reform, as well as fixing relations with Russia and resolving the Abkhaz and South Ossetian issues. According to the CRRC’s NDI poll, only 10% regard NATO as a priority while 2% regard the EU as a priority. Additionally, according to the same poll, about 40% of respondents agreed with the statement that “Georgia is not going anywhere” and about 70% consider their job status to be “unemployed.”  Under the present government, more action has been taken to meet these needs.  In Kakheti province, the center of the Georgian wine-making and grape cultivation, Garibashvili was well-received as he told local farmers, “in the last two years, our government planted four hectares of vineyards as an incentive for the peasants, while Saakashvili forced the peasants to cut down with their own hands the vineyards, which even Shah Abbas or other very cruel conquerors did not do.”

In general, all of this information illustrates that a significant pro-Russian sentiment does exist among the Georgian populace, regardless of claims to the contrary. Such support is most likely concentrated in the regions where poverty and unemployment remain widespread and where nostalgia for Soviet times persists. Consequently, if Georgia were to move toward Russia, concurrently with a Moscow-backed peace deal on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it is conceivable that the “silent majority” of Georgians would support the government. Therefore, the major concern for the government would not be the majority of the people, but rather the pro-Western hardliners in the political elite and their supporters.

In this regard, Tbilisi’s pragmatists face major challenges. Constant threats from Saakashvili and the UNM to launch a Georgian Maidan are being taken very seriously by the government. To a Georgian, such threats are especially troubling, given the legacy of the 1990s civil war in Georgia. If something like this were to happen, it would be a disaster for Georgia domestically and would seriously jeopardize very critical efforts at reconciliation with the Abkhaz and Ossetes. The stakes are high.

Saakashvili Addresses Supporters at the UNM Rally in Tbilisi (Reuters / David Mdzinarishvili)

Saakashvili Addresses Supporters at the UNM Rally in Tbilisi (Reuters / David Mdzinarishvili)

In this context, the government was especially cautious and restrained during the UNM’s recent rally against the proposed Russo-Abkhaz “Alliance and Integration” treaty that took place in Tbilisi on 15 November. Thousands of protestors attended the rally, some carrying anti-Putin placards and signs that read “Abkhazia and Samachablo [a Georgian nationalist term for South Ossetia] are Georgia.”  Addressing the rally via live video from Kiev, Mikheil Saakashvili told the crowds that there were two Georgias: “our Georgia” and “Ivanishvili’s Georgia.” Insulting Ivanishvili’s Imeretian peasant roots, Tbilisi-born Saakashvili bombastically declared that Ivanishvili’s “dream Georgia” is a “small, insignificant village that should not have regional ambitions” and that is “run by a provincial dictator.” He further provocatively drew parallels between the Georgian government and the government of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

All of this has underscored the need for extreme caution and prudence by the Georgian government.  Prime Minister Garibashvili perhaps said it best in a statement on 14 November, a day before the UNM rally:

I do not think that anyone can overlook the tightrope Georgia is walking today. Radicalism is absolutely unacceptable and inadmissible in our country today. Any step other than a peaceful, prudent, and pragmatic policy may lead us to grave consequences. Imprudent actions and radicalism led Georgia to the 2008 war. This must serve as an example to everyone; we cannot build our decision making upon emotions.

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